C.A.: Judge Need Not Give Reasons for Granting New Trial Motion
Fourth District’s Div. Two Declines to Follow 1993 Ruling by This District’s Div. Seven
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
Taking issue with a 1993 decision from this district, the Fourth District Court of Appeal held yesterday that a judge’s ruling granting a new trial to a defendant convicted by a jury is not undermined by the judge’s failure to articulate reasons for finding the evidence of guilt insufficient.
Writing for Div. Two, Justice Art W. McKinster said it is “the appellate court’s function” to decide “whether the trial court’s ruling is supported by substantial evidence.” Thus, he explained, “it is irrelevant that the trial court failed to articulate its reasons for concluding that the evidence was insufficient to support the verdict.”
Instead, he asserted, “we look to the record to make that determination.”
McKinster acknowledged that a contrary result was reached over a decade ago by this district’s Div. Seven in People v. Taylor (1993) 19 Cal.App.4th 836.
“We respectfully disagree with Taylor’s reasoning,” the justice declared.
The opinion for Div. Seven in Taylor was authored by Presiding Justice Mildred Lillie. She was joined by Justice Fred Woods.
Justice Earl Johnson dissented, but the state Supreme Court declined to review the case, with only Justice Stanley Mosk voting to hear it. Mosk died in 2001 and Lillie in 2002.
Lillie wrote that the court’s conclusion was compelled by the state high court’s 1953 decision in People v. Robarge, 41 Cal.2d 628. In Robarge, she noted, the justices concluded that a trial court considering a new trial motion may not “disregard the verdict or...decide what result it would have reached if the case had been tried without a jury, but instead that it should consider the proper weight to be accorded to the evidence and then decide whether or not, in its opinion, there is sufficient credible evidence to support the verdict.”
Where neither the new trial motion nor the court’s ruling articulates a proper basis for granting it, “we can only conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in granting the motion,” Lillie asserted.
But McKinster said Robarge and other cases make it “abundantly clear that a decision to grant a new trial on the basis of insufficient evidence is an abuse of discretion only if it is arbitrary or irrational, and that such a decision is not arbitrary or irrational if a reasonable trier of fact could have reached a result different from that reached by the jury.” The fact that substantial evidence supported the jury’s verdict—a factor cited by Lillie in this district’s decision to reverse the new trial order in Taylor—should not influence an appellate court reviewing such an order, he argued.
“[T]he presumption that the verdict is correct does not affect the trial court’s duty to give the defendant the benefit of its independent determination as to the probative value of the evidence,” McKinster wrote.
“[T]he idea that the existence of substantial evidence which supports the jury’s verdict renders the trial court’s contrary determination an abuse of discretion or a usurpation of the jury’s function contravenes the established law...: It is the trial court’s function to determine independently whether it is satisfied that there is sufficient credible evidence to sustain the verdict. If the record contains any substantial evidence which supports a judgment contrary to that of the jury, the trial court’s ruling must be upheld, even if there is also legally sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict.”
McKinster cautioned that it is “no doubt...the better practice” for trial judges to articulate their reasons for granting new trial motions.
Citing People v. Zapien (1993) 4 Cal.4th 929, the justice observed:
“The jurors, the attorneys and the public all have a right to know why a judge has decided to overrule the jury, and a statement of reasons facilitates appellate review of the decision for abuse of discretion. However, it is well established that on appeal, we review the correctness of the court’s ruling, not its reasoning.”
McKinster noted that Riverside Superior Court Sharon J. Waters had commented, in denying Roscoe Dickens’ motion to dismiss attempted murder charges at the conclusion of the prosecution case, that she had reservations about the sufficiency of the evidence that Dickens specifically intended to kill Bernard Gibbs. Gibbs told police he tried to break up an argument between Dickens and Dickens’ sister, who sustained a gunshot wound, but he was not injured in the incident and testified at trial that he was not present when the shooting occurred.
She denied the dismissal motion, saying she thought there was “probably” enough evidence to send the case to the jury. But after jurors convicted Dickens, she granted the new trial motion, commenting then that she had “difficulty finding an intent to kill based on this evidence.”
Neither the conflicting testimony nor the physical evidence “compels the conclusion that defendant intended to kill Gibbs,” McKinster said, noting that there was “no evidence that defendant had any reason to want to kill Gibbs, and no evidence that he ever threatened to do so.”
“Thus, we cannot say as a matter of law that there is no substantial evidence to support the trial court’s conclusion that the evidence was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant fired the shot with the intent to kill Gibbs. We therefore find no abuse of discretion in the decision to grant the motion for new trial.”
Justices Thomas E. Hollenhorst and Barton C. Gaut concurred.
The case is People v. Dickens, 05 S.O.S. 3354.
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